Government inertia on peatlands risks international embarrassment

Two-year delay to England peat strategy as damage continues to vital carbon stores  

This year, as the UK hosts the global climate conference, COP26, all eyes will be on the UK’s own action to tackle climate change. The Wildlife Trusts believe that the Government’s failure to address a key issue – how to end the damage to carbon-storing peatlands and restore a significant proportion of those that are already harmed – will be a major embarrassment. 

Peatlands are the UK’s largest on-land store of carbon, holding three times as much as woodlands. They store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon, but in their current degraded condition they release the equivalent of 23 million tonnes of CO2 every year. That’s 5% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. They are a precious wildlife habitat and vital for holding back and filtering water. Their benefits to society are immense. But a high proportion of UK peatlands have been damaged, drained, extracted and burnt over decades of misuse.  

Indications that the Government will fail on this issue are: 

  • There is still no sign of the long-promised England peat strategy – it was due in December 2018. The Wildlife Trusts believe that it will lack the ambition needed to address climate chaos and the decline of nature. 
  • The Government has said it will restore 35,000 hectares of England’s peatlands by 2025. Yet their own advisors recently estimated that around 300,000 hectares should be repaired in England. This initial commitment will see England delivering just 1/40th of the amount recommended for the UK. The Climate Change Committee has said that about 1,400,000 hectares of peatlands need restoring across the UK by 2050.  
  • The Government has pledged only £50 million towards peatland restoration in England. This is unambitious when set beside the £2 billion figure that will likely be needed to restore the area of peatlands that the Climate Change Committee says is needed across the UK. 
  • The Government’s recent announcement of a partial ban on peat burning was underwhelming; burning will only cease across a small number of peatlands despite a recent commitment by Lord Goldsmith to halt the practice entirely on protected sites. 
Degraded peatland, Yorkshire (c) Beth Thomas
Degraded peatland, Yorkshire (c) Beth Thomas

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts says: 

“The Government has failed to set an ambitious restoration target for peatlands even though they are one of the most valuable habitats in the UK. Just as bad is the fact that they do not have the appetite to stop the ongoing damage. The nature and climate crises must be tackled together – prizing our peatlands should be top of the Government’s to-do list. 

We must stop practices that damage peatlands. Burning should be banned everywhere and this precious habitat should be rewetted to stop moorland fires raging and to help rare and unusual wildlife like curlew, carnivorous plants and beautiful dragonflies to return. 

“Two years after it was promised, we are still lacking a peat strategy. Only around a quarter of the UK’s three million hectares of peatland is in a natural state so it’s a matter of extreme urgency that the Government leads the way in nursing degraded bogs and fens back to health.  

“Meanwhile, it’s left to voluntary charities to step in. The Wildlife Trusts have restored more peatland than the Government has committed to do.” 

The Wildlife Trusts are leading peatland restoration projects across the UK. To date, 12 Trusts have between them restored 43,000 hectares of peatland in England alone, working with partners and landowners, and already have short term plans to repair a further 16,000 hectares.  

Additionally, those Trusts have identified a huge range of peatlands with potential for restoration in their areas, covering over 200,000 hectares. This can be done by blocking up drainage ditches, rewetting and replanting with sphagnum mosses that help form new layers of peat and trap moisture. Cumbria Wildlife Trust, for example, estimates that 90% of Cumbria’s bogs are in a damaged state and has identified 35,000 hectares that are ripe to restore. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, too, will be restoring over 6,000 hectares this year alone, with Government’s 35,000 hectare target representing just a third of the peatland in that county.